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Prolonged drought muddies outlook for salmon season in North Bay

On the surface, the outlook is relatively bright for this year’s chinook salmon season, a popular time for sport anglers up and down the North Coast, and a potentially profitable one for the commercial fleet.

State and federal scientists issued their annual forecast this week and estimated more than 396,000 adult salmon were waiting to return to the Sacramento River system, known as the Sacramento fall run, to spawn this year and would be ready to catch.

That’s higher than all but one of the last seven years and would be the highest, except experts admittedly overshot with their 2015 forecast.

Those who fish in the ocean from Monterey to Eureka have some reason to feel optimistic after a strong season last year.

Salmon is the second most lucrative type of fishing in Bodega Bay, behind Dungeness crab. It has brought in half a million pounds in each of the last three years, with earnings in the $4 million ballpark.

Most of the salmon caught off the Central and North Coast are Sacramento fall run stock.

But there are complexities that govern how much fishing access will be offered when the season dates are set this spring. Among them are the need to ensure sufficient numbers return upstream to produce the next generation.

And questions abound about the impact of low water flows and high-temperatures as the ongoing drought enters a third year.

Could this be the last decent season for a while?

“There aren’t any clear answers, unfortunately,” said Marc Gorelnik, chairman of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages commercial, private and tribal fishing in federal waters of California, Oregon and Washington. “I think there’s a great risk of decreased abundance in the coming year because of basically the failure of natural reproduction in the Sacramento fall (run).”

Extreme drought has created challenging conditions for each life stage of California’s anadromous fish — the term for fish that hatch in fresh water, live most of their lives in salt water, then return to freshwater streams to reproduce.

Reduced water levels mean the water is warmer and potentially too hot in some areas for juvenile salmon that are still maturing upstream or preparing to migrate out to the ocean in spring.

When streams dry up, fish stranded in pools of water eventually die. Adult salmon also need a cold flush of water, typically from autumn rain, to signal that it’s time to swim up river to prepare to spawn.

Their redds, or gravel nests, need sufficient cool water to prevent the eggs from drying out.

Most fish leave the ocean and return upstream to spawn at age 2 or 3, so those in the ocean now are likely the last generation that didn’t have to endure dismal river conditions, though all reports indicate this year already is worse.

Hatchery fish have been struggling, as well. One test group was fitted with sonic tags and released from the Feather River Hatchery near Oroville, and by the time the salmon reached Rio Vista, 80% had perished because of poor river conditions, said Harry Morse, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

With nature raising so many barriers, humans are trying to help, in part by kicking up efforts to truck Central Valley hatchery smolts, or young fish, to saltwater bays so they can bypass poor river conditions on their way to the ocean.

State fish and wildlife last spring transported more than 16.4 million young salmon to San Pablo, San Francisco, Half Moon and Monterey bays, allowing them to bypass 50 to 100-plus miles of drought-impacted freshwater streams.

The level of success won’t be known until early next year, when the full accounting of tagged hatchery 2-year-old fish is made, Morse said, but this summer might give some indication.

Last year, 48% of the salmon caught by the commercial fleet and 64% of the recreational catch were hatchery-born.

John McManus, president of the Golden State Salmon Association, which has been a strong supporter of smolt trucking, said he had a lot of faith in their success and expected greater reliance on hatchery fish going forward. He said the state’s five hatcheries typically produce about 32.5 million fish, but two were going to hatch some extra to help mitigate drought losses, for a combined 34 million.

Hatchery fish “provide a Band-Aid and a bridge to get us through the worst spots,” he said. “I mean we saw a fair chunk of that this year last.”

Next week, the Pacific Fishery Management Council will begin accepting stakeholder input and guidance from state and federal scientists to develop three alternative sport and commercial season calendars, which will be finalized in early April.

The outcome is expected to reflect a need to ensure that spawning returns reach the target ranges of 122,000 to 180,000, the goal believed necessary to ensure sustainability of the Sacramento fall run — those hatched in the Sacramento River system and who then would be instinctively inclined to return there to spawn.

Last year’s returns didn’t reach 105,000. If the goal is missed a second year, fishery managers could declare the run “overfished.”

In addition, vulnerable stocks of Klamath River fall-run chinook, which were declared overfished in 2018, stray below San Francisco, intermixing with Sacramento fall run.

Fishing opportunities are expected to be curtailed when the Klamath stock are most likely in the area, further limiting opportunities.

So even though the forecast is higher than last year, with the constraint, the season “could be worse,” said Dick Ogg, vice president of the Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Marketing Association.

And the forecasts themselves, though informed, are still “a guess,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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